Following the death of the poet's widow, Valerie, a new biography has been mooted
The true creative impact of the mental decline of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, and the real nature of his abortive relationships with the women he saw following her committal to an asylum, along with other remaining mysteries of the renowned writer's life, are finally likely to be held up to inspection by an official biographer.
Following the death of Eliot's devoted second wife last week, her friends and former colleagues say access to all the poet's personal papers may now be granted. If so, the great poet's alleged antisemitism is also likely to come under fresh scrutiny. Love poems presented to his second wife every Sunday of their married life can also be published, according to her wishes.
Valerie Eliot, whose funeral takes place on Wednesday, was the assiduous editor of her late husband's letters and guarded his reputation with care during the 47 years following his death. Valerie, the poet's former personal secretary, guided his literary estate and did much to financially shore up the independence and future of the poet's publisher, Faber and Faber. But even though Eliot's widow was keen to systematically publish his wide-ranging letters, she prevented any writer from examining his documents with a free hand.
Any biographer now selected by the joint trustees of the Eliot estate would have plenty of drama to draw upon. As Eliot himself once commented: "It often seems to me very bizarre that a person of my [Unitarian] antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel."
The latest and third volume of Eliot's letters, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, was published this summer and covered 1926 and 1927, the period during which he was received into the Church of England and failed to get into All Souls, Oxford, because some of his poetry was judged "obscene and blasphemous". It also chronicled the development of Vivienne's madness. "I am in great trouble, do not know what to do. In great fear," he wrote.
Valerie's close friend and a trustee of the Eliot estate, Clare Reihill, believes she was potentially prepared to give access to an official biographer. "She did indicate some time ago she was more open to the idea," she said this weekend, "but she wanted all the letters to come out first."
Reihill said the future of the annual TS Eliot prize for poetry, which was funded by Valerie, is assured. The next awards ceremony, in January, is likely to be a poignant farewell to a benevolent force, she added. "It will be a special evening, particularly as the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is chair of judges."
Eliot's personal library is also not under threat, according to both Reihill and Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, the former publisher who worked alongside Valerie Eliot at Faber and Faber.
"She looked after everything meticulously and that will continue. But I personally would like to see more investigation into the influence of Eliot's close friendship with Ezra Pound. He has been understandably out of fashion due to his antisemitism, but he was an extraordinary essayist and his notes on Eliot's work are amazing."
The painful relationship between the American-born poet and his first wife was the subject of the 1984 play Tom and Viv. Early in their marriage she had an affair with Bertrand Russell, which Eliot is said to have ignored. Before her illness, she claimed that she and her husband were incompatible; he told his friends, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, that he could not imagine even shaving in his wife's presence. In 1928 he took a vow of chastity. The creator of the harsh worlds of poems such as The Waste Land and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock first considered a separation from Vivienne in 1932. He took up a professorship at Harvard and only met her once again before her death in 1947.
In America, Eliot renewed an acquaintance with an old girlfriend, Emily Hale, a drama teacher. She devoted herself to Eliot in the 1930s, but their relationship is thought to have been platonic. For 20 years the poet saw an Englishwoman named Mary Trevelyan too, but their relationship is thought to have been asexual. Trevelyan proposed three times, but Eliot explained that the idea of marriage, after Vivienne, was a "nightmare". In 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot married his 30-year-old secretary, Valerie, who had worked for him for eight years.